The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake recently elected to evict 26 non-natives from the reserve. The move, endorsed by all 12 chiefs of the MCK, has caused an uproar within and beyond the community of 8000 located on Montreal’s South Shore. Steve Bonspiel, the editor and co-publisher of Kahnawake newspaper Eastern Door, has been an ardent critic of the decision.
Q: We’ve read a fair bit about the eviction notices handed out to non-natives living in Kahnawake this past week. How long has the issue of non-natives been a point of contention on the reserve?
A: That depends on who you ask. The community is divided on the issue. It’s important to keep in mind that that Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) released these letters to the 26 individuals because of calls they received from 100 or so individuals. This is a community of 8000, so that’s hardly a good read on what the community thinks. They also did it without any community consultation whatsoever through a wider medium in order to reach a broader audience.
The issue goes back to 1973 when the longhouse started to evict non-native families that lived here with no ties to anyone in the community. Then it gained steam and community members, not affiliated with the longhouse, started going after people who had ties here (a spouse or children) and angry mobs visited houses to pressure people to leave. It worked and many left. These days things are different but the Mohawk Council is using these letters, and the promise of publishing the names of people who don’t heed their warning, as a way to again call on the community to put ‘peer pressure’ on these non-natives so they move. It is setting a dangerous precedent.
It’s important to note that there are hundreds of non-natives living here, not just these 26. Some have been adopted in and have little or no Mohawk blood, but they have become a part of the community. Others married into the community, have children and/or great grandchildren and they will not be targeted, according to the MCK, because they can no longer procreate. I’m not even making that part up. A number of chiefs have said that.
Q: The issue has been more or less dormant for several decades. Why do you think it flared up now?
A: The Mohawk Council actually put it out to the community, asking people to call in and identify people living here who, at least in the MCK’s mind, should not be. That’s all it took. The phone lines lit up (to a certain extent) and names came flowing in.
As a result these letters were sent out and all 12 chiefs are standing behind it. They all signed each letter and apparently they are all in agreement that this is truly what the community wants, although that is far from the truth. Not one chief has voiced concern or opposition to it, which is disheartening. They sold it as non-natives who are living here without ties, but the reality is many of the ones they sent letters to have been here for many, many years and are giving back to the community in many ways.
Q: What do you think will happen should these people decide not to leave?
A: Even the Mohawk Council can’t answer that one. I think a number of them (non-natives) will choose not to and to fight. And if that happens and if they sue to stay here—it has happened in the past—the MCK will have egg on their face because their plan, which was endorsed by a small minority, will have failed.
They talked about enforcement, but how do you go to someone’s house and tell their spouse of 20 years to leave? How do you tell a couple with two kids that they aren’t allowed to live in the community with their family because one of them is white? It goes against what our nation has been preaching for thousands of years: acceptance.
Q: As you suggest, the evictions have the makings of a court challenge, which would mean that Kahnawake would be put into a position of abiding by a Provincial/Federal court decision. Given the longstanding sovereignty issues between native and non-native communities, what do you think of the chances of this happening?
A: I think it becomes a question of human rights at a certain point. That’s how it will be argued, especially because they are trying this in the dead of winter—not great timing on the MCK’s part. Why do you think the MCK wants to use ‘peer pressure’ to get people out? Because how would they do it otherwise? Mobs like in the ’70s? The Peacekeepers [Kahnawake’s police force]? They could try those options but I don’t think it would look to good for their image and they just might find out that those non-native people living here, with or without ties, have quite a bit of support behind them.
If they keep going along this path, of targeting people that a small yet vocal portion of the community thinks should not be here, then they will surely be taken to court. I can’t see every single one of those targeted taking this lying down. And if there is one thing the MCK does not like it’s negative publicity and fighting cases they can’t win—and they are all very aware of that.